State, Fair Association, County in Standoff Over Sunshine Laws

Some nine months after the Humboldt County Fair Association and the county of Humboldt entered into an eight-year lease agreement for the association to operate the county-owned Humboldt County Fairgrounds in Ferndale, the lease still hasn’t been ratified by the state, the last step toward making it official. The county, HCFA and California Department of Food and Agriculture have all been rather tight-lipped about the situation, so it’s hard to be certain what’s causing the months-long impasse. But it is certainly clear that the state wants to see the HCFA bound by the provisions of California’s government transparency laws, the Ralph M. Brown Act and the California Public Records Act, which would require it to conduct its business in public and open up its records to public review, respectively. The HCFA, on the other hand, has argued that as a nonprofit entity it shouldn’t be bound to those laws, despite the fact that it maintains and operates 65 acres of county-owned land and is the recipient of public funds. The situation has grown so dire that North Coast state Sen. Mike McGuire has attempted to mediate the dispute. “We committed to join a conversation to connect fair representatives directly with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the agency that oversees fairs in the state,” McGuire said in a statement sent to the Ferndale Enterprise. “The goal was to ensure both sides were able to have a conversation and for the department to share why they believe the fair must comply with the Brown Act. I support the department’s findings.” HCFA operated as an “affiliate of a government unit” for decades and, thus, was subject to state transparency laws. In 2013, a divided board voted not to renew then-General Manager Stuart Titus’ contract and the following year Titus and his wife, Ferndale Enterprise owner, editor and publisher Caroline Titus sued the association, alleging it fired Stuart Titus in retaliation for his unwillingness to keep Caroline from writing pieces in the paper that made board members “look bad,” as well as his repeated reminders that the board should abide by open meeting laws. In court filings, the fair association countered that Stuart’s job performance and the way he interacted with board members were the catalysts for the decision to let him go. Ultimately, the association agreed to settle the lawsuit, paying the couple $150,000, but did not admit liability. But in…

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